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AUDIENCES TODAY

The audience is the best judge of anything. They cannot be lied to. Truth
brings them closer. A moment that lags theyre gonna cough.
(Barbra Streisand, Newsweek, 5 January 1970)

When information rules


As the emerging information age begins its reorganization of everyday life, the
study of media audiences has taken on renewed importance. This isnt just
because more information is mediated, its also because people are integrating
both old and new media technologies into their lives in more complex ways. In
his early discussion of the flow of television programming, Raymond Williams
noted the demands made of viewers by the pace and rhythm of the incessant
flow of diverse and sometimes discordant television programme fragments
(Williams 1974). Today, being an audience is even more complicated. The
media environment is much more cluttered. Where once there was one television set and one radio in the average home, there are now several of each. Where
once listening and viewing were group activities in the home, now individual
listening and viewing is the domestic norm, with people sometimes using
several different media simultaneously. It is not unusual today to find people
reading a newspaper, book or magazine while listening to the radio or the latest
MP3 track, or putting the latest interactive game on hold to take a call by
mobile phone from a friend. Mobile telephony and mobile internet access have
been added to the entertainment media mix, and in the future, streaming technologies for web radio and web television promise an intensification of this

MEDIA AND AUDIENCES

media layering. Today people actively add complexity to the range of information to which they are exposed by mixing media, media sources and media
activities. If we compare this media environment with the traditional idea of an
audience as the people present at a performance in a theatre or at a concert, it
is obvious that there has been a rapid and dramatic expansion of what it now
means to be an audience.
The frequency, range and immediacy of media engagements that link people
to the information flows that are the life blood of the information society
have obviously been precipitated by the proliferation of new technologies, the
convergence of old and new media technologies and the globalization
of communication environments. Separately and together, new technologies,
globalization and convergence create new opportunities for people to access
information and they pose significant challenges for contemporary understandings of media audiences and the significance of their activities. Evidence
of the type of impact this change has had on what counts as audience activity
was demonstrated by the emergence in the 1990s of reality TV.

Audiences and reality TV


Reality TV was developed during the 1990s as a means to revitalize a world of
jaded television viewers by adding new sensations of immediacy and agency to
the TV viewing experience. This mock ethnographic genre aimed to exploit the
interest of viewers in real-life stories. The ratings potential of the emerging
genre had been anticipated by the depth of viewer interest in the stories and
characters of ethnographic documentaries like Michael Apteds, Seven Up
series and by early fly on the wall programmes like the successful British/
Australian co-production, Sylvania Waters. This programme documented the
everyday dramas of an ordinary family living in Sydney, Australia. It offered
viewers an opportunity to witness the daily dilemmas, thought processes,
reasoning and reactions of ordinary people as they deal with the events of
everyday life. Viewers witnessed these processes in lives other than their own,
and responded by conferring celebrity status on the programmes participants.
As fly on the wall TV metamorphosed into reality TV, these early experiments were enhanced with increasingly exotic locations, more glamorous,
sexy, adventurous and willing participants, and increasing levels of producer
control of and intervention in the fabricated TV reality.
Reality TV reached the height of its popularity with programmes like
Survivor and Big Brother. These programmes were franchised internationally
and involved the production of local versions of a global TV product in
countries throughout the world. And, at the height of their popularity, they

AUDIENCES TODAY

evoked unprecedented ratings and intensity of TV viewer involvement. Importantly, Big Brother offered viewers room to intervene in the onscreen world of the
programme. At first this was limited to voting on which participant/contestant
should be voted out of the Big Brother house and off the screen and this
telephone voting constituted an added income stream for the production company. But viewer involvement did not stop at the telephone. In Britain, viewers
gathered outside the Big Brother house to welcome out the contestants voted
off the programme that week: other fans tried to evade security and invade the
house itself. Many started dressing to look like contestants, or mimicked personal traits and characteristics of the participants, and by the time an Australian
version of the programme was broadcast in 2001, these activities had been
incorporated into the programme planning. In addition, participants inside and
their support groups outside the house began to politicize the voting by
engaging in rigging tactics, using mobile phones and automatic number redial
techniques, to try and ensure their candidate in the house emerged the winner.
The intensity of emotional involvement exhibited by viewers of reality TV
led programme executives to consider new ways to monitor, channel and exploit
viewer interest. The usual press, radio and TV promotion and programmebased news therefore expanded to include website and email initiatives, and the
development of streaming technologies for TV and radio on the world wide
web offered additional opportunities for actively recruiting and estimating
viewer response to the programmes on a daily basis. The new strategies for
engaging audiences invariably required unprecedented levels of interactivity
between the production company and the public. Viewers were encouraged to
visit the website, and for a small subscription fee, could buy additional access
to coverage of the more intimate activities and interests of the participants.
Viewers freely emailed opinions and reactions, likes and dislikes, directly to the
programme websites. Internet technologies therefore allowed production staff
more immediate, detailed and specific feedback from viewers than could be
gained from syndicated ratings services (see Chapter 3), and provided them
with the option of collaborating more closely with audiences in the provision of
a greater viewing pleasure.
The Big Brother phenomenon was in many ways a watershed for our understanding of media audiences. It demonstrated forcefully one of the central
tenets proposed in this book: that a mass media phenomenon cannot be
explained by studying audiences or people factors alone. Viewing, listening
and/or reading are events that invite participation, and peoples participation in
media events can take many and varied forms. Increasingly the ways of being an
audience for a particular story or character set involves engaging with several
media and seeking out or piecing together the story across multiple media.
Being an audience now has an investigative dimension, and audience curiosity is

MEDIA AND AUDIENCES

subject to commercial exploitation. The Pokemon phenomenon is another case


where the engagement of audience curiosity was opened up for commercial
exploitation. It was possible to become a better Pokemon player by searching
for additional information by viewing the TV series, buying collector cards,
and searching the internet for Pokemon cheats. Allegiance to the Pokemon
phenomenon was also demonstrated by the acquisition of licensed merchandise. So, being an audience now extends well beyond viewing, listening
or reading, and as a result, new approaches to audience research are needed,
even if the research methods audience researchers call on remain fundamentally
the same.

Naming audiences as people and groups


The word audience is so much part of our everyday talk that its complexity is
often taken for granted. The word, after all, has a history that extends back into
unrecorded time, and reflects pre-broadcasting modes of accessing information.
In media studies audience is mostly used as a way of talking about people,
either as groups or as individuals. It is used to refer to large groups of people,
like the mass audience for television news, newspaper readerships, the general
public, or even people attending a major sporting event or a rock concert. The
people in such groups are seen as having little connection with each other, other
than an interest in the event they are attending or witnessing.
The word audience is also used to refer to groups of people who are linked
by ties of more enduring socio-cultural significance. These audiences may
be described as subcultures, taste cultures, fan cultures, ethnic diasporas,
indigenous or religious communities, and even domestic households. Members
of these groups bring certain shared interpretative perspectives to their
engagements with media and so are perhaps better described as formations
rather than masses. Such formations are shaped by pre-existing social and
cultural histories and conditions, and sometimes also by a sense of shared
interests that incline them to repeatedly use particular media vehicles (like
newspapers or radio programmes). These social formations exist independently
of the media, however, and so participation in media events does not usually
exhaust the range of their communal activity. Audience formations may combine or disperse to engage with the media, or be simultaneously together and
apart as is evident at major sports stadiums where audiences simultaneously
watch the game on the field and the televised game on the big screen, and see
themselves watching the screen at the game.
Then again, the word audience may be used to refer to relatively small, local
groups or congregations, like the people who attend a religious service, a school

AUDIENCES TODAY

speech day, a theatre performance, or a poetry reading. These groups remind


us that their purpose requires a designated space: a church, a school, a theatre.
The conjunction of time and space is important in defining audiences. The
expansion of access to the internet has created virtual spaces where even
smaller groups assemble. Meeting in time, but separated in space, the microgroups who frequent internet chat sites, gaming communities and other
web-based activities are new members of the audience family.
Whatever the size of the group or the materiality of the space involved, it is
obvious that being an audience has to involve more than just being in a group
of people. After all, masses of people crowd into railway stations, airport
terminals, holiday resorts and shopping malls, yet these people are not being
audiences. People meet in small groups for dinner and discussion, yet they
are not described as audiences when they do so. Something else is required
for people to be described as audiences. The extra required for a gathering
to become an audience is for participation to be structured according to
power relations governing the access to and use made of the informational
dimension of the event. The guests at the dinner party become an audience
when someone starts to tell a story, and the group contributes rapt attention
for the telling. When talking about media audiences, the mediatization of
information is often assumed to encompass the power and control dimensions
of the media event. Yet the increasing complexity of the media environment,
and the growing diversity of audience engagements, mean that it is time to reexamine such assumptions, and to expand our definitions of what media
audience means.

A media event perspective


Contemporary urban life depends on the media for the fast and efficient sharing
of information. The media enable people who may otherwise have no direct
contact to share access to the knowledge base on which their everyday lives
are grounded. By being audiences, people navigate the complexity of contemporary life, and enjoy a wide variety of active and satisfying social and
cultural experiences. The changing media landscape has, therefore, enabled a
dramatic expansion in the range and nature of the media spaces where communicative engagement is practised. Being part of an audience, using the skills
required to engage with mediated information, is now equal in importance with
family and interpersonal interactions. These are all means by which people keep
abreast of current affairs and contemporary trends, entertain themselves, relax,
take time out, become involved with the cultural life of their communities
and make themselves into interesting people. Everyone relies on being able

MEDIA AND AUDIENCES

to discuss the films, books or TV programmes they have seen that provoke
comment or reflection about the world around us.
Generally speaking, being part of an audience means being part of a media
event, where people engage with mediated information. People are audiences
when they are in an audience and in audience. All media events are audience
events since they require people to hang out in media time-spaces where they
physically, mentally and emotionally engage with media materials, technologies
and power structures. The audience event invokes the power relations that
structure the media as social institutions and delimit the options available
to people for involvement in the means of cultural production. Human groups
have specified such arrangements for telling stories from time immemorial. For
example, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1954 [1948]) carried out
fieldwork among the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea in the 1920s. During
his fieldwork he noted that the Islanders made special arrangements for telling
different types of stories. Myths, for example, were regarded as true and sacred
explanations of the origins of the world, and legends explained why certain
clans held power and others did not, while the fairy tale was told for the
amusement and enjoyment of the listeners and to promote sociability among
them. Unlike the other story forms, he noted that for fairy tales:
Every story is owned by a member of the community. Each story, though
known by many, may be recited only by the owner; he may, however,
present it to someone else by teaching that person and authorizing him to
retell it. But not all the owners know how to thrill and to raise a hearty
laugh, which is one of the main ends of such stories. A good raconteur
has to change his voice in the dialogue, chant the ditties with due temperament, gesticulate, and in general play to the gallery.
(Malinowski 1954/1948: 102)
Even the telling of fairy stories can be surrounded by conventions that differentiate who is permitted to tell the story and who may listen, and by, in this
case at least, communal endorsement of arrangements made to ensure that
audiences can hear the story told well. It is this type of arrangement that
we find, in a much more highly regulated and institutionalized form, in the
relations between mass media and audiences. Rights to produce and to tell the
stories that delight and entertain audiences have been licensed to the media
industries. The power structure, evident in the media industries control of
media production, in turn governs who creates and who engages with media,
and it presupposes the involvement of peoples bodies, their physical being, in
the time-spaces media create. In the complex communications environments
and knowledge spaces that characterize the Information Age, audience events
occupy an increasingly pivotal role as the means by which knowledge is

AUDIENCES TODAY

transformed into social, cultural, economic and political action. The media
event, then, involves simultaneously the minutiae of personal audience interests
and actions and the complex sets of conditions that are brought into play to
ensure the ongoing production of the cultures stories.
Broadly speaking five aspects of media events recur as sources of media
research interest:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

the audience participants as individuals;


the audience activities of the participants in the media event;
the media time/space of the event;
the media power relations that structure the event; and
the mediatized information with which people engage.

In all audience research, certain assumptions are made about what aspects
of the media event are acting on audiences and about whether or not such
influence is likely to benefit them. In subcultures and fan research, for
example, the aim is to trace the modes by which subcultural identity is maintained or threatened by the media and its patterns of representation, both of
people and their perspectives on current events. Subcultures research considers:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

who the subculture is in terms of its history and of its current sociocultural situation;
what types of media activities members engage in or organize for
themselves;
how media materials orient the group in time and space by assisting group
members to better understand the past, the present or their future direction;
how the subculture is empowered (or not) by the power relations that
structure the media event;
how the members of the subculture interpret by accepting, negotiating
or resisting the meanings privileged by the textual structure of the media
message.

In the case of subcultures, a fairly thorough overview of the media event is


considered necessary to understand the event and the subcultures participation
in mass culture.
In ratings analysis, by contrast, the aim is to produce an abstract map of the
mass audience and of mass audience behaviour. To achieve the sort of measure
of audience behaviour that can be used in statistical analysis, the media event
and the behaviour of audiences have to be reduced to their most basic elements.
In terms of our media event template:
1.

only easily verifiable audience demographics (age, sex, and so on) are
taken into account in determining audience composition;

|
2.
3.

4.

5.

MEDIA AND AUDIENCES


one audience behaviour only, exposure or tuning in, is counted for the
purpose of audience measurement;
analysis of the media time/space is limited to identification of the daypart
(defined by hours of the day when viewing occurred, or by the type of
content viewed see Webster, Phalen and Lichty 2000: 240);
the structures of the media come into play only in terms of their capacity
to offer a broadcasting service to the place where the viewer/listener is
located; and
media content is considered a programming or scheduling matter, rather
than a matter of concern to audiences.

Ratings analysis has a very specific purpose audience measurement. Its


purpose is best served by streamlining the sorts of information taken into
account (ratings analysis is examined in detail in Chapter 3), so it defines the
media event in a very abstract way.
These examples demonstrate that what we know about audiences is
dependent on how the media event is defined and on what aspects of audience
engagement with the media are being researched. By exploring the media event
as a complex socio-cultural phenomenon, much more detailed and interesting
information is developed about media audiences about who they are and
what they are doing, and about the long-term cultural significance of their
activities. In Chapter 2, several studies that use historical research to examine
the long-term implications of media events are introduced. These studies show
that the repercussions of audience adoption of new media can be the catalyst
for dramatic social and cultural change. The chapter then presents some of
the key approaches to audience research (content and response analysis;
personal influence; uses and gratifications; encoding/decoding) by examining
the problems they address and the definitions of the media event they invoke.
From the perspective of the broadcast media industries, the most important
thing about audiences is whether they are tuned in or not. The act of tuning
in is called exposure and the relevance of this behaviour as the basis for
information about audiences is questioned in Chapter 3. As indicated above,
exposure is the only audience act that is documented and statistically analysed
by the commercially operated research firms who produce ratings analysis. In
most parts of the world, the sale of audience exposures is used to fund broadcasting services. Since audience exposures are the only commodity produced by
broadcasting, the ratings system doubles as a form of communication between
broadcasters and audiences. However, the power balance in this system of
communication favours the broadcaster, and because the information to which
broadcasters pay attention, the exposure, is abstract, this system does not
necessarily work in the long-term interests of audiences. For this reason it is

AUDIENCES TODAY

important to understand at least the basic terms used in ratings analysis and
to gain a better understanding of how broadcasters and advertisers think about
audiences.
The basic principles and techniques of ratings research were developed in the
early days of mass broadcasting. Syndicated ratings services have been available
to the broadcasting industries since the mid-1930s (Beville 1988: 258). While
the recording and processing of audience measurement has been transformed
over the years, the basic procedures and formulae used have remained constant. Recently, however, the relevance of people meters and diaries has been
challenged by new technologies for recording and analysing ratings data. New
information technologies allow audiences to be monitored, and their consumer
decision-making analysed, more quickly and more thoroughly than ever before.
The internet allows peoples net-surfing to be followed and analysed for commercial opportunities. The computing power of the Information Age has led
audience measurement researchers to be able to embrace a new-found interest in
the relationship between broadcast and internet service providers and their
client audiences. Chapter 3 therefore concludes with some discussion of cyber
activities where audiences and industry engage in the same or parallel activities,
like data mining, software co-development, news production and file sharing.
The internet is a media space where industry and audience rights are currently
hotly disputed, while still in the process of being defined and developed. In
this context, one aspect of the media event considered least relevant for ratings
analysis in the past that is the analysis of what audiences do with the
information they gather from the internet emerges as the site of contestation
over future media growth.
The history of audience research is littered with the corpses of studies that
have tried and failed to demonstrate, once and for all, a cause and effect
relationship between media message and receiver behaviour. Chapter 4 therefore provides a journey through the effects literature, moving from early concerns with propaganda through to the more contemporary debates that
question whether mass media have any effect at all. Whilst there is little doubt,
in the literature as much as amongst armchair philosophers, that the media play
an important role in contributing to the social, economic and cultural environment in which we live, attempting to show precisely that this message causes
that behaviour is rather a lost cause. Chapter 4 thus maps out the chronological
development of the cause-effect paradigm and shows how researchers have
come full circle from early audience theories which insisted that there was a
simple one-way flow of influence from the media to the audience, through a
rejection of audience passivity, back to a serious concern over the influence of,
in particular, violent media content on criminal or violent activity. Along the
way, we consider the still controversial view that watching violent films or

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MEDIA AND AUDIENCES

TV programmes is a pro-social act since it serves a cathartic function where the


viewer can safely act out and identify with overt displays of aggression and can
feel satisfied with the vicarious thrill of danger rather than have to experience it
at first hand.
Early interest in the media/audience relation was provoked by a suspicion of
news broadcasting and its propagandist tendencies in the pre- and immediate
post-World War 2 period, and researchers have continued to be fascinated by
news media, both print and broadcast. Much of the focus on news genres has
been concerned with identifying bias, with traditional studies continuing to
mine the now well-worn seam of political bias, whereas other work, especially
researchers working with feminist and post-modern approaches, have tended to
look at aspects of identity and representation. Chapter 5 considers all these
approaches before moving on to consider the medias role in election campaigns, including negative attack ads, the differential reporting of women and
men candidates and the ways in which voters are enlightened (or not) by the
medias election coverage. Crucially we explore the extent to which the media
are influential in determining election campaign outcomes, finally arguing that
the media are more likely to affirm voters in their pre-existing political beliefs
than to change minds significantly. In other words, media do have an impact
in elections but that impact is more confirmatory (of existing views) than
revolutionary.
Fans are perhaps the most committed of all audiences in their loyalty to
particular programmes or films or particular characters within programmes
and film narratives, and fans are the principal focus of Chapter 6. In this
chapter we examine the ways in which researchers have conceptualized the
fan, both at the level of theorizing the difference between fans (low culture)
and connoisseurs (high culture) as well as exploring how fans manifest their
fandom. In a review of the literature on established fan communities, especially those for programmes like Star Trek and Coronation Street, we also look
at the newer groupings that have been enabled by the internet, and at the ways
contemporary fans and fan groups communicate amongst themselves via virtual gateways. In particular, we look at the kinds of artefacts which fans produce, from handwritten fanzines to plotlines which are taken up by producers
and worked into episodes, in order to explore the ways in which fans engage
proactively with the object of their fascination, showing agency rather than
passivity.
The final chapter looks at the ways in which new genres and new media are
transforming the nature of audience interactions with media, which, in turn,
means considering the new twists and turns of audience research. We suggest
that the internet has opened up interesting new areas for research by requiring
us to reconsider:

AUDIENCES TODAY
1.
2.
3.
4.

5.

who is able to participate in the audience and who is not;


what types of (perhaps unexpected) activities do they now engage in;
how the time/spaces of the internet change the ways people think about
their everyday interactions and the world around them;
do the questions traditionally asked about ownership and control and
media regulation apply to the internet, or are new collaborations and
contexts for the sharing of information making such questions redundant;
and
what types of information are mediatized for the internet and how does
their mediatization influence the ways the world is organized.

While the Information Age has introduced new media and new forms, and
allowed people to organize themselves as audiences in novel ways, the tools
available to the media researcher (for example, questionnaires, interviews,
observation, focus groups) remain the same, even though we are now able to
combine them and analyse them in different ways. Moreover, new media do
not always consign older media to the scrap heap, and while the internet may
suggest new challenges for audience research, the middle-aged technologies
such as TV and radio are still the media most widely used. In fact, we can argue
that the new technologies have stimulated innovative programme development
for free-to-air television and talk-back radio by demonstrating the relevance of
interactivity for mass media contexts.
Readers might want to note that there is a companion Reader to this book,
Critical Readings: Media and Audiences (edited by Virginia Nightingale and
Karen Ross 2003). Readings which appear there and which are relevant to
chapters in this book are identified at the end of each chapter. We have also
included a glossary of terms at the end of the book and these are indicated in
the text by bold italics.

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